Speech by Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier at the opening of the exhibition Between Two Stools ‑ The History of Italian Military Internees 1943‑45 at the Nazi Forced Labour Documentation Centre in Berlin
“Cara mamma ritornerò”
“Dearest mother, I’ll come back,” these are the words that the Italian Andrea Talmon etched into his dish more than 70 years ago ‑ in barracks just like the one you see behind me.
His dish was a simple bowl from the Italian army ‑ dinged and scratched. But here in the camp, these bowls were more than just dishes. They were often the only thing the men had left from their beloved Italian homeland. Thus, they became a metal canvas for their yearnings and anguish. The prisoner Ivo Sghedoni left two compelling words on his bowl: “Fame e Paura” ‑ hunger and fear.
Hunger and fear. Suffering and injustice ‑ inflicted on Italian military internees by German National Socialists. It is to this that these men’s bowls bear witness. As does this disturbing and yet at the same time moving exhibition which we, Paolo, have the honour of opening today.
The National Socialists took hundreds of thousands of Italian men captive after Marshal Badoglio signed the armistice with the Allies in September 1943. Italy’s alliance with National Socialist Germany was over.
The Italian soldiers, who to that day had fought shoulder to shoulder with the German Wehrmacht, were now quite literally caught between two stools.
It was the Germans who had hitherto been their allies who herded them together, transported them in goods trains to the German Reich and Poland and forced them to perform hard and heavy work ‑ mainly in the armaments industry. And it was the same former allies who now openly and loudly ostracised them as traitors.
“Children threw stones at us and women spat at us,” as the Italian soldier Settimo Bosetti described it. “We were bad people, traitors, the scum of the earth. This contempt almost hurt more than the hunger!”
The dishes of men like Andrea Talmon tell us what this contempt for the lives of the internees really meant. For example, when the Nazis introduced a food‑for‑work system meaning food rations could be cut as an insidious punishment.
“I was forced to break up ice, let the frozen snow melt in the cooking pot on the ground and drink this water, such as it was,” the internee Esposito Donato recalled. “You picked the crumbs off the table. I do that to this day! ... Hunger is something you never shake off.”
More than 650,000 Italians were used as forced labourers in the German war economy. An almost unimaginable number. More than 50,000 died in captivity.
At a place like this here in Schöneweide, Paolo, we look back at the darkest chapter of our shared history. At unspeakable suffering and pain.
This look back into the dark past, to my mind, sheds light on our view of the present. At the long journey that our two countries have made over the past seven decades. A journey that built friendship and trust within a united Europe. For that I’m deeply grateful to you, Paolo, and to all our Italian friends.
This mutual trust also marked the start of our path towards a culture of shared remembrance – something we did not have for many years.
This work began during my first stint as foreign minister. I remember it well: Eight years ago my counterpart Franco Frattini and I stood in La Risiera de San Sabba, a former rice mill in Trieste, which the National Socialists made into a “death factory” ‑ a camp for prisoners of war, a camp in which to detain and torture hostages, partisans and other political prisoners. La Risiera de San Sabba became a transit camp for Jews prior to their deportation to concentration camps, for military internees prior to their deportation for forced labour.
There, at this dark place where between 3000 and 5000 people were murdered in the war, we resolved to set up a joint commission of historians. A commission to confront and examine the German‑Italian war past in a detailed and open manner.
The Commission recommended we create a Future Fund, a fund to provide concrete assistance to people working on exploring and coming to terms with the past and on reconciliation: whether through school competitions, exchange projects or documenting the abhorrent crimes perpetrated by National Socialists in Ponte Buggianese or in Civitella where German Wehrmacht soldiers carried out horrendous massacres.
Over the last two years, Paolo, I was able to visit these places. And what moved me above all when I was there, in places where the horror of our past is so palpable, was the way in which the people received us Germans. Not with rejection or animosity but with warm hearts and open minds. I was very touched by that.
Today we are opening another place for remembrance here in Schöneweide. This permanent exhibition, recommended by the German‑Italian Commission of Historians, creates a place where we shed light on the particular fate of the military internees drawing it out of the shadow of the past and into the present day.
Those who go down to the cellar of barrack 13 will be able to decipher inscriptions written on the walls by Italian prisoners.
And despite all the melancholy, it almost brings a smile to your face when you see the daily grind of hunger and suffering reflected in the etchings on the wall. One prisoner, for example, marked his place in the air‑raid shelter with the simple word “Riservato”. But there is another inscription. It is barely legible. Under the scribbled date 21 March 1945, a prisoner added a single word, perhaps to describe the end of an air raid: “Passato”. “It’s over”.
It’s over. The painful chapter of German‑Italian history which the Schöneweide camp represents is over and finished. But we must not and will not forget.
In fact, this place calls upon us to be vigilant. To ensure that hate and contempt never again make their way into our societies. To protect and nurture what we have achieved in Europe in the last 70 years: Peace. Partnership. Community.
Passato ‑ This is not a historical observation. It holds a message we should never forget.